Sunday, February 17, 2008

Ye Gods

Yes, as the previous entry shows, I am reading Jeanette Winterson’s The Stone Gods. Among the most trivial of the issues it makes me ponder is what kind of fool gave the name to silicone polymers. You don’t exactly have to be a linguist to see where that was going to lead. The excuse that there was some chemical rationale for it (the ‘-one’ suffix was chosen by analogy to ketones, with which silicones were mistakenly thought to be homologous) is no excuse at all. After all, chemistry is replete with antiquated names in which a terminal ‘e’ became something of a matter of taste, including alizarine and indeed proteine. So we are now saddled with endless confusions of silicone with silicon – with the particularly unfortunate (or is it?) consequence in Winterson’s case that her robot Spike is implied to have a brain made of the same stuff as the brainless Pink’s breasts.

But for some reason I find myself forgiving just about anything in Jeanette Winterson. Partly this is because her passion for words is so ingenuous and valuable, and partly it may be because my instinct for false modesty is so grotesquely over-developed that I can only gaze in awed admiration at someone who will unhesitatingly nominate their own latest book as the year’s best. But I must also guiltily confess that it is clearly also because we are so clearly both on The Same Side on just about every issue (how could it be otherwise for someone who cites Tove Jansson among her influences?). It is deplorable, I know, that I would be all smug and gloating if the science errors in The Stone Gods had come from someone like Michael Crichton. But of course Crichton preens about the ‘accuracy’ of his research (sufficiently to fool admittedly gullible US politicians), whereas it is really missing the point of Winterson to get all het up about her use of light-years as a unit of time.

Ah, but all the same – where were the editors? Is this the fate of famous authors – that no one deems it necessary to fact-check you any more? True, it is only the sci-fi nerd who will worry that Winterson’s spacecraft can zip about at ‘light speed’ (which we can understand, with poetic licence, as near-light-speed) without the slightest sign of any time dilation. And she never really pretends to be imagining a real future (she says she hates science fiction, although I assume with a narrow definition), so there’s no point in scoffing at the notion that blogs and iPods have somehow survived into the age of interstellar travel. But listen, you don’t need to be a scientist to sense something wrong with this:

“In space it is difficult to tell what is the right way up; space is curved, stars and planets are globes. There is no right way up. The Ship itself is tilting at a forty-five degree angle, but it is the instruments that tell me so, not my body looking out of the window.”

Um, and the instruments are measuring with respect to what? This is actually a rather lovely demonstration of the trap of our earthbound intuitions – which brings me back to the piece below. Oh ignore me, Jeanette (as if you needed telling).


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